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Historical Comparative Research

The historical-comparative research approach is a type of research used as a mediator between theory and history, providing a check on more interpretive methods that is relatively well grounded in the past.  While historians focus on a descriptive method that presents events and evidence in a contemporal context, social science researchers begin with a descriptive account of past events, but extend such understanding through an interpretive approach that accounts for broader societal conceptualizations, paradigms and explanations.  The comparative element comes from the systematic analysis of two or more similar events on a comparative basis in an attempt to identify both similarities as well as irregularities.

To conduct historical-comparative type of research scientists generally resort to recorded accounts preserved as content in textual, visual, audio or video form.  When possible, this can be augmented by interviews and observation but typically historical-comparative research happens in an a posteriori fashion.  The researcher’s involvement is therefore non-interventional and is conducted from a contemporal, and possibly also a geographical and cultural distance.

Challenges to the historical-comparative approach spring primarily from limitations in the comparative method – finding two or more cases that are essentially similar can be challenging, and even when such cases are identified one could never achieve perfect variable-to-variable comparison.  Researchers, therefore, must resort to speculation, and so again the concerns associated with interpretive approaches, debated extensively in previous sections, are introduced.  Further, dependencies among variables may exist, and the method is not conducive to controlled analysis.  Finally, as most data will come from historical sources, its authenticity, validity and reliability must be established satisfactorily.

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